Last week’s video-game trade show E3 2010 wasn’t just about 3-D technology and motion controls. It also featured more games than any person could ever hope to play.

In addition to “Dance Central” for the Microsoft Kinect, Cambridge’s Harmonix revealed “Rock Band 3.” The latest version of the popular rhythm game adds a keyboard controller along with the new Pro mode, which accurately reflects every note and drumbeat played in a song. You’re basically playing a real instrument, especially if you use the compatible MIDI guitar from Fender, which is a fully functional six-string Squier Stratocaster. It’s better than taking lessons.

“Portal 2,” Valve’s follow-up to 2007’s sleeper hit, also impressed. Although it wasn’t playable, a closed-door demo revealed confounding new mechanics like tractor beams, laser rays and a gel that makes you jump higher. These additions feel like good fits for the puzzling world of “Portal,” and so far the sequel seems to preserve the original’s charm and wit.

That humor stood out among the mass of stereotypically grim first-person shooters. From Vietnam (Activision’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops”) to Afghanistan (Electronic Arts’ “Medal of Honor”), from an alien invasion of New York (EA’s “Crysis 2”) to Earth attacking other worlds (Sony’s “Killzone 3”), first-person shooters were as prominent and generic as ever.

“XCOM” might be an exception. 2K’s remake of the classic computer game colors its first-person shooting with light strategy and the atmosphere of a 1950’s horror film. It diverges greatly from the tactically minded original, and the arbitrary ’50s setting feels a little too indebted to “Bioshock” and “Fallout,” but at least “XCOM” sticks out from E3’s pack of uninspired shooters.

On a friendlier note, Nintendo unveiled “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” for the Wii, and will revive two other long-running franchises with the Wii games “Donkey Kong Country Returns” and “Kirby’s Epic Yarn.” “Epic Yarn” is absolutely gorgeous, with art that looks like cloth. Sony’s “LittleBigPlanet 2” expands the original’s creation mode beyond the platformer to all manner of genres, including real-time strategy and old-school shoot-em-up. It also prominently uses a song from Boston’s own Passion Pit. Disney’s beautiful Wii platformer “Epic Mickey” brings classic Disney cartoons and environments to life.

E3 2010 also brought the expected sequels (Microsoft’s “Fable III,” EA’s “Dead Space 2,” Sony’s “Infamous 2”) and cartoon tie-ins (Warner Bros.’ “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.”)

There were racing games for gearheads (Sony’s “Gran Turismo 5”), car chase aficionados (Ubisoft’s “Driver: San Francisco,” EA’s “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit”), and homicidal maniacs (Sony’s “Twisted Metal.”) Fans of “Grand Theft Auto”-style sandbox games could cause chaos in Hong Kong (Activison’s “True Crime”), the 1950s (2K’s “Mafia II”), and the very near future (Microsoft’s “Crackdown 2.”)

Basically it was a show full of games slightly like one’s we’ve already played, or, in other words, a typical E3.



Many are surprised that Warren Spector is making a Mickey Mouse game. Even Spector, who is best known for smart, mature action games like “Deus Ex” and “System Shock”, initially had no idea why Disney wanted to work with him on the 3-D platformer “Epic Mickey”. He was excited about the opportunity, though, and the closer one looks the more sense it makes.

Spector was a film professor before designing games, and taught classes on animation history. He’s also a Disney fan from birth; his first toy was a stuffed Pluto doll. He’s deeply versed in Disney’s history, which makes him a great fit for a game steeped in Disney lore. Spector expounded on his reverence for Disney and his game design philosophies at an E3 roundtable discussion, making the case that he’s the right man to invigorate Mickey Mouse’s video game legacy.

Spector’s design philosophy, and the driving concept behind “Epic Mickey”, is that “playstyle matters.” Although story and character are important, Spector’s main goal is to empower players, to put them in control of the game and let them play how they want. This includes providing multiple solutions to problems and reinforcing the importance of choice and consequence to a broader, more mainstream audience. And with “Epic Mickey” Spector is shooting for the broadest audience possible, thanks to perhaps the most recognizable and beloved character in the world.

“Epic Mickey” is Spector’s twentieth game, and at this point he’s interested in making games that can be enjoyed by families and players of all ages. Spector asserts that providing players the freedom to play a game the way they want is the most mass-market, mainstream design approach possible. “Epic Mickey” represents that focus by prioritizing accessibility and utilizing a property as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse.

Spector’s admiration of Disney shines through in “Epic Mickey”. The levels on display at E3 recreate both familiar and obscure environments from Disney films and theme parks. One level was based on Adventureland, complete with the Swiss Family Treehouse and the Enchanted Tiki Room.

Some non-playable characters are familiar faces from Disney movies, while others are random extras with the anonymous look of early Disney background characters like Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. Villains include Walt Disney’s early creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the Phantom Blot, a character best known from Floyd Gottfredson’s Micky Mouse comic strip from the 1930’s.

Most impressive are the side-scrolling levels based on actual Disney shorts. The E3 demo showcased a level based on “Steamboat Willy” that looks like a playable version of the cartoon. It’s like an animatic come to life.

“Epic Mickey” has a great aesthetic, but it differs noticeably from early concept art. Spector pointed out that games change constantly in development, and that there’s no straight line from a project’s inception to its finish. The post-apocalyptic dystopian vibe that permeated the concept art seems to have disappeared, or at least been downplayed. The world of “Epic Mickey” remains less-than-sunny, though, with Mickey trying to liberate various Disney locales from the rule of an angry Oswald. And although the levels displayed at E3 lack the creepy and decaying aesthetic of those leaked concept images, they’re still highly stylized and visually striking.

Spector worked closely with Disney artists and feels like he’s found a creative home at Disney. He also admires Disney’s “culture of innovation”. As a creator who would rather “try and fail” than do the easy thing, Spector welcomes the challenge of reinventing Mickey as the “ultimate video game hero.” And although “Epic Mickey”’s foundational elements appeared in Disney’s original treatment, Spector has placed his own stamp on the game by focusing on accessibility and playstyle.

Two buzzwords sum up E3 2010, the video game trade show held this week in Los Angeles: 3-D and motion controls. Nintendo announced a new 3-D handheld called 3DS. Microsoft unveiled the Kinect, the controller-less motion sensor that was formerly known as Project Natal. Sony jumped on both bandwagons with the PlayStation Move and the launch of 3-D gaming on PlayStation 3. The technologies are different, but they all aim to make video games more immersive and realistic than ever.

Nintendo’s 3DS might have stolen the show. The dual-screen handheld looks and feels like a traditional DSi with an expanded upper screen and an analogue joystick nub above the joypad. The upper screen transmits stereoscopic 3-D images that don’t require glasses. A depth slider lets you fine-tune the 3-D effect, or you can turn it off entirely. It works surprisingly well, with simple and effective 3-D images that are rarely disorienting.

Nintendo announced several 3DS titles, including “Kid Icarus: Uprising,” the first Kid Icarus game in almost 20 years. Expect a number of 3-D remakes of old titles, including 3DS versions of “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” “Metal Gear Solid 3” and “Pilotwings.”

Sony’s 3-D initiative isn’t quite as successful. They heavily promoted the arrival of 3-D to PlayStation 3. Sony’s take on 3-D graphics might be more technologically complex than the 3DS, but it’s also more of a commitment. It requires an expensive 3-D TV set and glasses in addition to a PlayStation 3. A headache-inducing demo of the first-person shooter “Killzone 3D” was blurry and disorienting. Three-dimensional shots of “MLB: The Show” were cleaner and less distracting, so perhaps “Killzone 3” was merely the wrong game to demonstrate the technology.

Fortunately for Sony they also had the PlayStation Move on hand. The new motion controller uses both a camera and a Wii-styled remote to read your movements. The Move comes closer to true one-to-one motion sensing than the Wii Motion Plus, impressively detecting both broad arm motions and slight wrist turns. The software isn’t as inspired, with the expected Wii Sports knock-offs and mini-game collections. “LittleBigPlanet 2,” “Killzone 3” and “SOCOM 4” all support the Move, though, as does the upcoming action-adventure game “Sorcery,” so Sony is serious about creating traditional gaming experiences for the Move.

Microsoft announced Project Natal, a controller-free motion sensor add-on for the Xbox 360, at last year’s E3, but few attendees were allowed to try it out. This year brought both a change to the awkward name “Kinect” and a number of game announcements. In addition to bland Wii rehashes such as “Kinect Sports” and a “Star Wars” game for the fanboys, the Kinect’s launch titles include Harmonix’s excellent dancing game “Dance Central.”

“Dance Central” impressively tracks your movements as you dance in time with an on-screen avatar to pop hits of the past and present. There are no controllers or dance-pads, just free movement in front of the Kinect camera. Sure, you can dance just fine without all this expensive technology, but making a game out of it might incite those who would otherwise never get off the couch.


The most important thing I learned in college was to keep two televisions in the living room. That way I could watch TV and play videogames at the same time. Newfangled games like Alan Wake make that set-up unnecessary.

Microsoft’s new metafictional thriller isn’t the first game to present itself like a movie or TV show. It’s not even the only game this year to aim for the creepy and mysterious atmosphere of a David Lynch movie. What makes Alan Wake unique is that it pulls it off.

Look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The story takes a few interesting turns, and one scene briefly hits the right combination of beautiful and unsettling common in Lynch’s films. It’s hindered by lackluster dialogue and voice-acting, though, and the game itself is riddled with poor design choices. Meanwhile Heavy Rain immediately falls apart thanks to an embarrassing story.

Alan Wake avoids these problems. The genuinely engrossing story is backed up by solid game mechanics. It works as both a third-person shooter and episodic drama. It’s as addictive and thought-provoking as Lost but tells a complete story in only twelve hours. It might brazenly flaunt its narrative inspirations, but in the end Alan Wake tells its own distinct tale.

Alan Wake is a best-selling mystery writer, like Stephen King with cool-guy stubble and a leather jacket instead of down East flannel. Crippled by writer’s block, Wake and his wife take a vacation to a Northwest logging town that might as well be called Twin Peaks. It’s full of quirky locals and inexplicable supernatural phenomena. An evil presence contaminates the town, possessing townsfolk to further its goals. An unaware Wake is vital to the entity’s plans, and also the only one who can stop it.

The action is as idiosyncratic as the story. Enemies are shielded by impenetrable darkness; disperse that with a flashlight or flare and they’re easy pickings for your firearms. This encourages a bit more thought than most third-person shooters.

The game breaks the story into six episodes, each with end-credit music and a “previously seen on” recap. The mystery unravels at an even pace, as every episode ends with a key reveal and cliffhanger. Answers lead to more questions, and like The Prisoner the conclusion is open to interpretation. And like Lost or Stephen King, Alan Wake doesn’t disrespect anybody’s intelligence. Despite its mind-bending twists it remains accessible enough for a mainstream audience.


Wait, Castlevania needs to be reborn?

Unlike Gradius and Contra, the first two Konami franchises to get the ReBirth treatment, the Castlevania series has never gone away. It hasn’t even changed that much over the years. Konami’s kept that whip a-crackin’ on the DS with a steady flow of traditional two-dimensional Castlevania side-scrollers. They’re as much of a handheld staple as those animal touching games kids get when their parents are too cheap or lazy to take them to a real zoo.

That doesn’t mean Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth won’t satiate anybody’s appetite for empty nostalgia. ReBirth is a 16-bit style remake of a Castlevania GameBoy release from 1989. As such it’s the most traditional Castlevania game in years. The DS series looks and plays like the original Castlevania, but it owes more to 1997’s Symphony of the Night, an all-time great that stirred Metroid-style retraversal elements into the vampire-killing mix.

ReBirth eschews those extra layers in favor of old-school simplicity. These levels are strictly linear, with no rambling castle offering an illusion of open-ended exploration. Each stage ends with a battle with a different monster-themed boss, and then it’s immediately on to the next level. There are no experience points or stat upgrades. Power-ups are limited to a two-tiered whip upgrade and the standard Castlevania secondary weapons like battleaxes and stopwatches. It’s like 1986 all over again. If Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth was a sitcom, it’d be shot with four cameras and sport a laugh-track and Tony Danza in a starring role.

That’s why ReBirth feels fresh today, oddly enough. It’s so traditional it makes the 13-year-old Symphony of the Night and its progeny feel like punk upstarts. It’s for anybody who just wants to tackle the undead with a whip and a dagger, or who wants to kill giant eyeballs, Dracula, and Death itself without having to check a map or worry about the math of weapon and armor upgrades. It’s Castlevania for old-timers. It might be dry and musty, but ReBirth is an effective salve for anybody struggling to keep middle-age at bay.


The first Mass Effect suffered from an identity problem. It couldn’t decide if it was a role-playing game or a third-person shooter. Even worse, the box-art and promotional materials made you think some generic buzz-cut space marine was the main character. Everyone knows Commander Shepard is a tough-but-compassionate bottle redhead with a weakness for space liquor and alien women. She’s also a beautiful lady.

Okay, that’s only my Commander Shepard. Like fingerprints or DNA, everyone has their own Shepard. Mass Effect gave you total control over Shepard’s appearance and great leeway with her biography. The story and its multitude of branching decisions were designed to create a kinship between you and your character, making you feel like you’re actually having a conversation with the game and not just going through some preordained motions. That was the best part of an otherwise flawed experience.
Mass Effect 2 is more confident and assured. It’s better than the original in almost every way, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite an engrossing story and a few indelible characters, Mass Effect was a technical mess. Beyond frequent graphical hiccups, the game struggled to unite RPG conventions with third-person action. It wasn’t that good at either, with a clunky cover mechanic and an aggravating inventory system. It was hard to lose yourself in Mass Effect because you were constantly pausing the action to select a special power or make room for new items.

Mass Effect 2 is a major overhaul, paring back the original’s already stripped-down RPG elements. Instead of loot drops, you research upgrades that apply to either your entire party or specific members. Skill trees have been truncated; instead of dozens of incremental steps dispersed between several abilities, each point leads to a large boost for one of a handful of skills. This doesn’t water anything down, instead proving that massive inventories, rigidly segmented classes, and extensive skill trees aren’t necessary to inhabit a role, which is the ostensible point of a role-playing game. There’s enough character customization and progression to make your Shepard feel unique without getting bogged down in dated and unnecessary gameplay conventions, especially if you import your character from the first game.

It’s also been greatly improved as a third-person shooter. The controls might not be as smooth or the maps as well designed as Uncharted 2, but Mass Effect 2 fixes many of the first game’s issues. It’s easier to aim and pop in and out of cover. You can also map three different biotic powers to a single button-press instead of one, so you don’t have to pull up the game-pausing power select wheel nearly as often.

Most importantly, Mass Effect 2 is a better piece of interactive fiction, largely because it’s less interested in plot than character. That’s the biggest narrative change from Mass Effect, where the story was king, and character interaction wasn’t always interesting or necessary. You could save the universe just fine in the first game without ever taking the time to speak with your crew; try that in Mass Effect 2 and nobody will live through the final battle.

The bulk of Mass Effect 2 involves compiling a crack squad to take down a race of aliens aiming to destroy the galaxy. You can recruit characters in any order you like, choosing missions from your ship’s galaxy map. If you want your crew to be loyal you have to undertake special missions for each character. These loyalty missions work brilliantly; on the surface they’re about earning your teammates’ loyalty within the game, but in practice they make you loyal to your fictional squad. By the end of each mission I cared more about that character than I imagined possible, even the ones that were aesthetically or behaviorally off-putting at first.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t content to merely put most videogames to shame. It challenges Hollywood itself, with better writing and acting than most recent sci-fi movies. It’s almost as good as Uncharted 2 at merging games and cinema, ending with a final showdown that’s a master-class in pacing and tension. And unlike most games or movies, you can immediately restart Mass Effect 2 and have a very different experience.


It’s never a good sign when something has to tell you how scary it’s supposed to be. Call it the Count Floyd rule. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories isn’t as desperate as SCTV’s horror movie host, but it’s less frightening than funny. It touts its psychological profiling of the player, but does it as hamfistedly as possible. You’ll take the occasional grade-school psychology exam, administered by a therapist who looks and talks like a soap-opera villain. This melodramatic emphasis on the dark and mysterious dominates the writing and voice acting, spoiling what could have been a good series reboot. The awkward combat and enemies of previous Silent Hills are gone, replaced with solving puzzles and running like hell from unbeatable phantoms. Your only tools are a flashlight and a cellphone, both of which make great use of the Wii’s unique motion controls. Too bad the story’s about as subtle as an episode of All My Children.